At the height of summer, a gardener may well wish for less labor and more plants that take care of themselves. The ideal candidate is a versatile bush that flowers – fragrantly, if possible – produces berries that can be eaten by oneself or the birds, and looks attractive in fall.
From personal experience, I can recommend three different shrubs that have grown tremendously well in my Dorchester County garden near the Bay. All three have the additional quality of attracting our threatened bees, butterflies and other pollinators to such an extent that it has to be seen to be believed. Two do an excellent job forming a hedge, should you need one.
I had no idea that some types of cranberry bush grow taller than a basketball player until I ordered a Highbush Cranberry from a catalog four years ago. My immediate goal was to find a plant that would thrive in the slightly boggy depression that divides my garden from the neighbors’ lawn. If it blocked out the view of their boat trailer and produced edible fruit, so much the better.
While on one hand the experiment succeeded better than I could possibly have imagined, on the other, it taught me to read nursery catalogs very carefully and to telephone the producer if one has any questions not answered in the written description.
On the plus side, the six-inch plant that arrived in the mail in 2010 has turned into a six-foot tall, four-foot wide bush that blocks the view of the next-door metal equipment admirably. Eventually, the luxuriant foliage studded with white flowers or bright red berries, depending on the season, will reach eight to 12 feet in height and width.
In spring, Viburnum Trilobum (its botanical name) produces lovely blossoms that resemble Queen Anne’s Lace, smell sweet and attract many pollinators. The flat flower clusters provide excellent landing pads for flying insects, many of which are considered beneficial to humans because they eat the bugs that damage our gardens and crops.
The plant is also known as American Cranberry Bush. It’s native to our continent, another point in its favor. In addition, the shrub turns lovely shades of color in fall and the red berries last through winter. It also appears to resist the pests that plague some other plants in my garden, such as Japanese beetles and deer.
My one quibble: The berries, which I assumed would be edible, can indeed be eaten, but by birds rather than humans. When I called the nursery and asked how long it would take before the bush produced berries I could eat, the person answering the phone said: “Oh, its berries are not like the cranberries you eat at Thanksgiving, they’re more for the birds.” You would think they might mention that in the catalogue. Remember the ancient Roman saying: “Caveat emptor” (“Buyer Beware”)!
The incident taught me to do my homework carefully before plunking down my money. But I’ve really no regrets because the plant is spectacular in all other ways and I have another bush that produces something far more delicious than cranberries – raspberries.
Raspberries get my vote for the most delicious berry that exists: Ms. Berry Universe. A Red Heritage Raspberry plant I bought at Lowe’s in Easton four summers ago has colonized a protected corner of the yard along the northeastern side of my house. The spot gets shade in the morning and full sun all afternoon – not the ideal conditions for a shrub known to like cool summers. But this hardy plant doesn’t mind.
Raspberries are not for the small garden, I’d say. But, I could be wrong. The gardener would have to be after them all the time, however. You have to be something of a berry glutton, prepared to say “No problem!” as you see small raspberry plants sprouting everywhere. You should be ready to dig up the little ones and farm them out to friends when the invasion becomes too much.
My bush, whose label says “deer-resistant, but not deer-proof...etc.,” (material for another column), produced wonderful berries the same summer I planted it. What’s more, it has what the label calls “summer and fall harvests.” I’d edit that to read “early summer and mid-summer.” In fact, the second harvest is just gearing up, with large succulent berries ripening in clusters of about 12, at the end of five-foot long canes.
It’s important to cut the dead canes to the ground in late fall, after they’ve produced all the fruit they’re going to, so the bush can put its energy into growing the new green canes you can see now, the canes that will make berries next year.
As for fall color, I’d say it’s mainly yellow on this bush, as the leaves turn golden, die and fall off. Nothing like the flaming fall color of Crape Myrtles or Japanese Maples.
“Please The Bees”
An unexpected boon – which I had no idea about until this summer – is that a raspberry bush is an absolute star when it comes to attracting pollinators. Bees, dragonflies, butterflies and a host of creatures I haven’t yet identified adore the raspberry patch.
What’s more amazing to me is that the flowers it produces are almost invisible, at least to a human eye. The petals are so small and narrow, almost colorless and translucent, that they resemble the eyelashes of a blond baby. Yet the insects find raspberry flowers irresistible. No wonder the bush is so prolific. The shrub makes pollinators, as well as people, happy.
Another magnet for pollinators, which like the Highbush Cranberry makes an excellent hedge plant, is Rose of Sharon. Mine, called Blue Satin Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus Siriacus ‘Marina’), has flowers in a delicate shade of lavender blue, with deep red-violet centers. They offer an exceptional view of pollinators at work, from early morning until evening.
The six-foot tall bush sits in full sun and not outstanding soil. As I write, it’s been blooming for weeks. In time, it will grow to be eight to 12 feet tall and wide.
Rose of Sharon, described in an old gardening book of mine as “a stout shrub easily grown anywhere,” also flowers in white, magenta or pink, depending on the type you plant. Some gardeners plant several in different colors, side by side, to make a multi-colored (at least in summer) hedge.
Incidentally, it’s one of the few bushes that flower in August – another point in its favor. As with many flowering plants, dead-heading the flowers (snipping them off when faded) encourages more buds to open quickly, ensuring a constant source of beauty as well as food for local bees and other pollinators.
One of my favorite early-morning activities at this time of year, apart from eating raspberries, is to stand very close to the Rose of Sharon and watch bees climbing into the deep flowers to forage, then turning around and clambering out again., all the while humming in a purposeful fashion.
Speaking of blue, while looking for information on the Highbush Cranberry, I came across a few pages on the Highbush Blueberry. Another native, it also likes boggy ground, swamps, open forests and the landward edges of freshwater and brackish marshes, such as we have here in Dorchester. One of many candidates for the category of “a few good bushes.”
A subject worth pursuing on another day. In the meantime, happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Ms. Sands is a Dorchester County Master Gardener. Questions for the column may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Banner, Attn. Gardening Column, 103 Cedar St., Cambridge, MD 21613.